In blow to Netanyahu, vote to fast-track bill on direct election for PM delayed

Ra’am’s objection hinders initiative hours before premier’s mandate to form government ends; Arrangements Committee advances right-wing bills in effort to split rival bloc

Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra'am party, leads a faction meeting, in the Israeli parliament on April 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra'am party, leads a faction meeting, in the Israeli parliament on April 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deadline to form a government hours away, the premier suffered a setback Tuesday evening as a bill he had pushed, aimed at initiating snap direct elections for the premiership, stalled due to the objection of the Islamist Ra’am party.

The Knesset’s Arrangements Committee did, however, fast-track a string of right-wing bills in an effort to drive a wedge between the various parties opposing Netanyahu, including one that would legalize 70 West Bank outposts and another that would allow parliament to override Supreme Court rulings.

With hours remaining before Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires at midnight Tuesday-Wednesday, Arrangements Committee chairman Miki Zohar (Likud) put forward the bills, widely seen as an attempt to split the coalition of anti-Netanyahu parties, which is made up of left, right and center parties.

Likud had hoped to advance legislation in the Arrangements Committee that would initiate snap elections for the premiership. Netanyahu has backed the move as a solution to the current political stalemate, insisting that once he wins the vote, other parties that have until now held out on backing him will come around on doing so.

However, such a vote would not change the current makeup of the Knesset and the premier would still be faced with the same coalition math that has prevented him from forming a government until now.

While Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party said it would back the bill, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope have opposed it. Netanyahu needed the Islamist Ra’am party to get on board, but it also announced that it would not do so. The Kan public broadcaster reported that the Arab slate reached a decision on the matter after being notified that the package of right-wing legislation being advanced by Zohar included the outposts legalization law, which it viewed as a pill too large to swallow given opposition among their constituencies.

As a result, Zohar notified his panel that the direct election legislation would not be brought to a vote for the time being.

Other bills brought forth by Zohar included legislation to bar the entry of “infiltrators” into Israel, a “death penalty for terrorists” law, a law that would allow Israelis to resettle the West Bank settlements that were evacuated as part of the Gaza Disengagement in 2005, a bill to give the Knesset a greater say in the appointment of judges and a bill to cancel the Basic Law enshrining the current power-sharing coalition agreement between Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, stipulating that the latter will replace the Likud leader as premier if no government is formed by November.

Typically, 45 days are required to elapse between the submission of legislation and when it can be brought before the Knesset to a vote. Zohar used his position as Arrangements Committee chair to bring to a vote requests for each piece of legislation to be exempted from that 45-day period, thereby allowing for the fast-tracking of the bills. They can be brought to a first reading vote before the Knesset as early as Wednesday.

While the right-wing Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu and New Hope parties have been engaged in negotiations to join a unity government led by Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, they each issued statements saying that their lawmakers would vote according to their ideological stance.

All three of them voted in favor of fast-tracking the legislation to “regulate” dozens of illegal outposts throughout the West Bank. Yamina and New Hope voted in favor of fast-tracking legislation that would allow for a majority of MKs to override a particular Supreme Court ruling. Both bills were narrowly advanced through the Arrangements Committee thanks to their support.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, analysts speculated that none of the bills being discussed by the key parliamentary panel were likely to advance much further as the unity government being negotiated includes center and left-wing parties that oppose them. Likud is hoping that the support among certain right-wing populations for the bills Zohar introduced will force the right-wing lawmakers in the so-called “change bloc” to break commitments necessary for sustaining an easily breakable unity coalition that has yet to even be sworn in.

If Netanyahu fails to announce a majority coalition by midnight, President Reuven Rivlin would have up to three days to decide what to do next. Netanyahu could seek a 14-day extension, which the president is not required to grant. Or Rivlin could give the mandate to another MK — including Lapid or possibly Yamina’s Naftali Bennett. Or he could throw the mandate to the Knesset, which would have 21 days to find a candidate backed by 61 or more of the 120 MKs; if it failed, Israel would automatically head to its fifth election since April 2019.

Should Lapid be tasked with forming a government next, he will be able to choose a new Arrangements Committee chair from his own party, dooming any chance that the bill for a direct vote will be heard in the Knesset.

Yamina chair Naftali Bennett leads a faction meeting in the Knesset on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The balance of power in the Arrangements Committee was decided in a key Knesset vote last month when a proposal for the panel’s members pitched by Netanyahu’s Likud and its allies was defeated, and that of the opposition leader passed instead. The Arrangements Committee, a temporary body formed after elections, is central to Knesset procedures and wields great power until a government is established.

The proposal to hold a direct vote for the premiership was first floated last month by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key pillar in Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc, though Likud officials were pitching it to potential allies before Shas publicly encouraged it.

Netanyahu leads a bloc of right-wing and religious parties facing Lapid’s so-called “change bloc” of right-wing, center and left-wing parties seeking to oust the current prime minister. Neither bloc has a majority in the Knesset and two parties have been left in kingmaker positions, Yamina and Ra’am, led by Mansour Abbas.

Both blocs would likely require the cooperation of both those parties in order to have a majority, with Bennett seeking to become prime minister himself and Abbas offering outside support for whichever government is best for the community he represents.

Bennett and Abbas have negotiated with both blocs but have not yet committed to either. Bennett has urged the establishment of a right-wing government and has said that he will back a Netanyahu-led government on condition that it has a majority in the Knesset; otherwise he may join with Lapid’s bloc.

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